Warshaw: Rooney leads the way, behind Seattle's surge & more from Week 25

Hey, all. Matt’s on vacation this week so Bobby here to do the weekend recap. Big shoes to fill, but here goes nothin’.

As our fathers always told us…

What’s the measure of a true star? Talent, of course. Winning, obviously. But it’s more than that. Lots of athletes win. No, greatness requires something else. There’s another layer some athletes offer.

They make the game easier for their teammates; they make the players around them better. Superstars don’t just play well – playing well is a given; they also lift the players around them. The teammates to the right and left look better for being in their presence.

Jermaine Jones did it for the New England in 2014, powering the Revs to MLS Cup. Nico Lodeiro did it for Seattle in 2016, leading the Sounders to their first MLS ring. And Wayne Rooney has done it for D.C. United in the last two games, a 4-1 win over Portland on Wednesday and a 2-0 win over New England on Sunday.

The point I hope to convey is not that Rooney has been that great – he hasn’t. But just about everyone else on D.C.’s roster has had their best two games of the year. Lucho Acosta looks like a bona fide star, Paul Arriola looks like a marauding box-to-box/winger hybrid; Yamil Asad looks like the Atlanta version of Yamil Asad; Russell Canouse looks like Pablo Mastroeni; Oniel Fisher looks like freakin’ Dani Alves; and the center backs got a shutout, the team’s first since April.

There are multiple variables at play beyond Rooney’s presence. Mostly, the team is finally playing some home games. We’ve seen teams go on a run in a new stadium like this before. But it’s impossible to ignore Rooney’s significance.

I’d break Rooney’s contribution into three categories:

  1. He’s extremely comfortable on the ball, and that chill becomes contagious. If you made most MLS players 2% calmer on the ball, they’d mostly look like new players.
  2. He pulls the attention of defenders. Because he’s Wayne Rooney. The opposing center backs have to stay closer connected to him, the defensive mid stays closer connected. Space opens up across the field. If you gave 2% more space to most MLS players, they would mostly look like new players.
  3. Infectious arrogance. Rooney showed up to MLS to make the playoffs. It probably doesn’t register in his brain that his team couldn’t make the playoffs. That confidence spreads across the team. All of a sudden, a group goes from feeling like an 11th place team to a playoff force. If you made most MLS players 2% more confident on the field, it would mostly make them look like new players.

I didn’t expect Rooney to make a huge difference for United on the field this year. I assumed D.C. would use 2018 as a rebuilding year to make a run in 2019. But he’s lived up to his billing. Not just because of his contributions. But because of Acostas, Arriolas, Canouses, et al. We expect superstars to make the players around them better. I didn’t listen to much my dad told me when we watched sports on TV, but I heard that much.

A few more things to ponder…

10. The Sounders pounded the Galaxy, and the 5-0 scoreline was generous to LA’s performance. This game didn’t make one of the slots in the recap because LA were missing five key players. Seattle have mostly punished weaker teams – Vancouver, San Jose, Minnesota, and NYCFC on short rest – on their win streak, so I was hoping to see the Galaxy test Seattle, even if Sounders coach (and birthday boy!) Brian Schmetzer couldn't care less what I think:

Heath Pearce – the former USMNT defender, MLS All-Star, and MLS Cup starter – was in the studio on Saturday and he said worthwhile things about each team.

When I told him that I couldn’t figure out if the Sounders were good or why they were winning, he said (summarized for clarity):

Some managers set a defined plan and then ask the players to fit into it. It can, like everything in sports, create a Catch-22. Clear framework can lay the foundation for success but it can also create a ceiling. You’re always trying to solve problems in reference to those core principles, so you get locked into circling back to those concepts. If you don’t have a single identity, however, you have more avenues and options to improve.

The Sounders work in a bottom up format. The players figure out the plan as the season goes. They aren’t limited by a prearranged mindset; they are free to find any answers at any time. They are constantly changing, constantly evolving. And then when they start to get into a rhythm, they feel more ownership, confidence, and momentum, that’s what leads to the runs we see them go on.

And when it all starts to click, opponents can’t keep up. It is hard for teams to find the single thing that the Sounders do well and stop that; it’s hard to identify or isolate what that one thing is. When the opposition starts to stop something, nothing keeps the Sounders from trying something new, even if they don’t know what that thing will be.

It’s a risky approach, but we can see the potential pretty clearly.

When I asked about his thoughts on the Galaxy’s defending (and, really, about the poor defending around the league lately):

The one thing that I learned during my time in Major League Soccer, is that if you don’t have that one person that says ‘this is my backline,’ it doesn’t matter how good everyone is. Every time I’ve been on a successful backline, we had one guy who says, 'this is mine, you’re going to follow this, and if you don’t then we’re going to go without you.’ I don’t know who that is for them right now.

It also shines light on something Doyle sent me, presumably (hopefully) from his cabana:

Why are the Galaxy so bad defensively? Because they lose the individual battles in the moment, but they lose the tactical battle before the ball’s even kicked. They are too often on different pages, looking like a team that’s never prepared to do the things they seemingly want to do.

Maybe time to sacrifice some talent for leadership?

Amongst Seattle’s barrage, we also got the Pass of the Week. I only get one go at this, so obviously I’m picking a defensive midfielder.

As always with d-mids, the highlight is about more than the defining action. Svensson reads the game, closes out the press, attacks the ball, then plays the one-touch volley perfectly into his teammate for the goal. The clinical, goal-creating pass is simply the culmination of a classy all-around play. Fantastisk, Gustav.

9. Josef Martinez is unreal.

What superlatives are left? With his goal Sunday in Atlanta’s 3-1 win over Columbus, he tied the single-season scoring record – held by Roy Lassiter, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Chris Wondolowski – with nine games left in the season (or seven, if we want to compare him to Lassiter’s 32-game 1996 season). Josef could pull a Doyle and take a couple weeks in Cabo and still come back and break the record a few times.

One of my friends in high school used to bemoan when NBA commentators would get mad at players for playing poor defense. “Kobe can pull up for three if you lay off!” my friend would yell at the TV. “He can blow by you if you get close; he can find the open man if you double team him. What do you want the defenders to do? Some of these guys are literally impossible to guard.”

That line replays itself in my mind whenever I watch Martinez play. If you step to him, he accelerates by you; if you drop off, he takes the space. He can outsmart, outrun, outjump, or outplay anyone who tries to match up.

Sometimes you watch a player and you feel fortunate for having him in your life. That’s Josef right now.

Columbus made it a fun game. Some teams go to Atlanta and avoid the ball. Crew SC tried to play from the back and combine through the midfield.

Watching the game, it didn’t feel like Atlanta was the runaway better team. It mostly felt like Atlanta had most talented attacking players who were more likely to make a play to win the game.

I thought this was the crucial play for Columbus in the game, and a microcosm of the difference between the teams:

Rookie Edward Opoku, who had an otherwise okay game, has to take his first touch toward goal there. If he drives inward, he puts the defense under real pressure. Small details, but then Atlanta’s winger, Tito Villalba, did this 10 minutes later:

Columbus will still feel like they can go to Atlanta in the playoffs and get a result. They should also feel like they have some improvements to make.

8. Am I allowed to ask for more from an expansion club, especially one that’s in third place and coming off a win?

Bob Bradley’s team was so good in the first half of the year – through their performances, results and signings – that they set a ridiculous standard for themselves. But it’s a standard they set nonetheless, and it’s a standard they haven’t matched in recent weeks. The Black-and-Gold beat Colorado, 2-0, in the late game Sunday night. But the team looks…flat?…compared to their early-season form.

Again, they look better than most teams and will take a two-game win streak into Friday’s El Tráfico Tres, but they still appear adrift from the electric showings they provided early in the season. They were my favorite team to watch for the first couple months of the year and now the games are kinda…uninspired?

The numbers show the drop, too.

  xG Chances Created Through Balls
First 12 Games 25.23 158 35
Last 13 Games 22.27 130 31

The Open Cup run took a toll, for sure. And Mark-Anthony Kaye’s energy has been missed. And teams have started to close the lanes that LAFC annihilated with their runs and through balls. And soccer often becomes slower in the summer.

LAFC haven’t done anything wrong. They are still good. They just aren’t as good as they appeared to be two months ago. Or, at least they aren’t as fun to watch. And I think with LAFC the two might be intertwined.

7. You are not welcome on the Philly train. Prices have gotten too high. Seats are taken. If it’s taken you this long to see that Philadelphia are good and fun, then you don’t deserve the joy that is:

Or the soccer gratification that is:

And it wasn’t just Ilsinho channeling his inner ‘Dinho, Philly dominated NYCFC for the full 90 minutes en route to a 2-0 victory. And it’s not just that Philly had more passes, expected goals, and shots than NYCFC – Philly have shown they can play in between the 18s with anyone in the league – the Union’s young center back tandem of Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott kept David Villa anonymous, particularly near goal, in the Spaniard’s 56 minutes on the field.

If the Union can be as good around the goals as they are in the middle third, they could make the Big 3.5 in the East sweat a little bit.

On the other side of that, NYCFC have been trending the other way.

The Red Bulls await on Wednesday…

6. The Whitecaps can’t really make the playoffs, can they? Can they?

Vancouver survived a murderer’s row recently:

  • vs. Minnesota: Win (okay, maybe that one wasn’t that tough, but then...)
  • at NYCFC: Tie
  • at Portland: Win!
  • vs. NY Red Bulls: Draw (that should have been a win!)

Red Bulls went zonal on the corners, and Kendall Waston dunked on them. Twice.

And Vancouver’s schedule takes a nice downhill ebb over the next couple weeks with games away then at home against San Jose, followed by an anything-can-happen rivalry game vs. Seattle.

If Vancouver take six points from their San Jose games, they will be playing Seattle in a glorious six-pointer that could set the table for the final stretch of games. Imagine if the ‘Caps get in but Seattle or the Galaxy slip out.

Vancouver probably can’t make the playoffs, but also probably shouldn’t have gone undefeated against Portland, NYCFC, and Red Bulls.

5. Toronto can’t really miss the playoffs, can they? Like, I know we’ve been talking about it a lot, but Seattle made the run. Toronto will, too, right? Right?

The Reds haven’t beaten a non-Chicago team in league play since early June. They travelled so San Jose on Saturday in a game you HAVE to win if you’re fighting for a playoff spot, and the Quakes had more shots, more chances, and more expected goals. It’s shaping up to be a hell of a last two months for Toronto.

Following the trip to San Jose, Jozy Altidore and Chris Mavinga will return from their suspensions, and Drew Moor will have more minutes under his belt. It’s possible that Toronto could finally have their top 11 players on the field for these last 10 games.

They need about 20 more points to make the playoffs with the following schedule: Montreal (A), Portland (A), LAFC (H), LA Galaxy (H), NY Red Bulls (A), New England (H), Vancouver (H), D.C. United (A), Montreal (A), Atlanta (H).

The thing about Toronto is that they could win every single game on that list. The other thing about Toronto is that they could find a way to drop points against anyone, as they did in Saturday’s 1-1 tie with the Quakes.

I think it’s safe to say that, as a neutral, we can all only hope Toronto need three points to secure a playoff spot and Atlanta needs a win to clinch Supporters’ Shield going into that last game.

Oh yeah, and Wondo scored, moving him to within four of Landon’s all-time goals record.

4. There’s no such thing as a must-win game for a first place team. But things could have gotten awkward for FC Dallas if they had failed to win for a third straight game, especially given Minnesota were in town. The Great Debacle of 2017 featured a draw at home to lowly Colorado in the third game of their long winless streak, so the similarities could have started to mount.

But Dallas handled their business, 2-0, and never really looked in danger of dropping points. It was the typical ruthless efficiency we’ve come to know from an Oscar Pareja team.

The biggest takeaway:

Mauro Diaz returned to the team. Pablo Aranguiz did some things that will make Dallas fans feel the playmaking duties are in good hands.

Kudos to @guapozx on Twitter for flagging that clip.

3. One of the best low-key battles right now is between Houston and Chicago, and neither seems content on conceding the “most able to consistently lose in a heartbreaking fashion” award. Houston lost their fifth in a row, this one coming after leading 1-0 into the 90th minute against an RSL team that had one win on the road in the last 12 months. Albert Rusnak was the talisman, both on and off the field.

Chicago lost their eighth straight, taking this loss in the 91st minute on a right-footed side volley from outside the box by Montreal’s left back.

The positive? Doyle bought Chicago stock right at the start of the losing streak, and the bank is ready to collect, so I’ll be having a nice bottle of whiskey this week.

2. Another game I would liked to have had higher if not for key absences… Sporting KC cruised by Portland at Children’s Mercy Park, 3-0. Diego Chara didn’t play for Portland, and Portland haven’t won without Diego Chara on the field since the last time Jose Mourinho smiled on the sideline, so it’s tough to take much away from what could have been a great top-of-the-table matchup.

Here are probably the two biggest things:

  1. Diego Rubio scored twice for SKC. Rubio is a former Designated Player with caps for the Chilean national team and once transferred to Sporting CP, one of Portugal’s biggest clubs, for over a million euros. There’s a stud somewhere in there. Krisztian Nemeth was never a slam dunk as a No. 9, so any game-changing production from a center striker is a very good sign.
  2. It’s three straight shutouts for Sporting, and 10 on the year, matching their total from last year. So I’m going to link to the time a few weeks ago when Doyle said Sporting fans should be panicking about their D (yes, I went back and re-read all of Matt’s recaps to prepare and took notes on all of his failed predictions).

The Timbers have lost three straight. I suspect they aren’t stressing much, though. They demonstrated over their 15-game unbeaten streak that they have a thing. They tried to evolve recently – a necessary task that started with a 4-4-2 diamond against Vancouver last week – and had a bad week, but they can always revert back to that thing. Head coach Gio Savarese said after the game, “In the three games that we played, we tried to do certain things that didn’t work out. But, as I said, we learned a lot this week for us to make sure that we’re prepared better.”

They play a surging Seattle next weekend at Providence Park and I imagine we will see a return to the rigid, boring, but effective deep 4-3-2-1. If they concede multiple goals at home, then maybe they will start to soul search again.

1. As always, we end with the Face of the Week, courtesy of a pretty cool moment from Johnny Russell

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